- The Void of Mist and Thunder
Tick knew that the Nonex was a place where a gorilla could suddenly erupt out of the sand, then turn into a moth and fly away. All kinds of unexplainable stuff happened all the time, but Jane was right. The craziness had ratcheted up considerably right before they escaped.
“You do remember the rip in the air I saw?” Jane asked.
“Huh? Oh. Yeah. I do.”
“There was a boy and his father, or perhaps his grandfather, in a forest, looking back at me. And I knew something was off about it, something dangerous. I backed away, and just in time, too. A terrible storm of gray mist and thunderous lightning exploded within that rift, destroying whatever was close by on both sides of the rift. You saw what the area looked like afterwards.”
Tick remembered. It had reminded him of TV footage of a tornado’s aftermath. “So you’re saying that what you saw was the Fourth Dimension?”
“A better way to put it is that I saw what comes out of the Fourth Dimension. The Void of Mist and Thunder. It’s always been a rumor, a myth—pure speculation. Until now. I believe the Void is a living thing, but without conscience. The complete and pure power of creation. All it wants is to escape its prison and consume everything in its path. It’s mindless and hungry.”
“How do you even know about it? You already have a name for it, but you never told anyone about it. Why not?” Tick felt sick inside. Here was yet another thing that had gone wrong. And somehow it linked back to being his fault.
“I’m old,” Jane said. Her red mask had returned to a blank expression, but Tick knew anything could set her off. “I’ve researched the origins of our universe in hopes of making it better. That crotchety old George and I worked on this project together, years ago. Trust me, I’m sure he’s figured out what’s going on by now and is sweating a river.”
“What is the Fourth Dimension?” Tick asked. “I still don’t really get it.” He hated admitting that to her, but he had no choice.
“Well, you know what 3-D is, correct? Three dimensions?”
“Well, the Fourth is named that because it’s a step beyond anything we understand in terms of vision and . . . placement. Three-D is exponentially greater than 2-D. And the Fourth is infinitely greater than 3-D. The power of the Void is much, much greater than any kind of energy we know in our own dimension. If unleashed, it will consume this world like food and use it to recreate another. And all of us will die along the way.”
Tick almost wanted to laugh. “You’re really clearing things up.”
The mask flashed to anger. “Stop it. Now. None of your childish sarcasm, do you understand me? What I’m talking about is very serious. More deadly than even my Blade of Shattered Hope. Do you understand?” She shouted the last question, making Tick lean back in his chair. “It was your meddling with that Blade that ripped open the Fourth Dimension in the first place!”
“Okay, I get it.” Tick was scared, but he didn’t want to show it. “But this isn’t the first time you’ve tried to work with me. The last time ended with you trying to choke me to death. Remember?”
“Oh, Atticus.” The anger and spirit seemed to drain straight out of Jane, her shoulders slumping and her mask melting into another frown. “Do you still really believe I was trying to kill you that day? We had to stop Chu, and at the time, hurting you was the only way to get you to release your Chi’karda. You couldn’t do it at will like you can now.”
Tick looked at the floor. Jane confused him so much. She seemed to have some good in her, but she’d also done some terrible, awful things. But could he really blame her completely after what he’d done to her?
“I don’t know what to do,” he said quietly. He was tired of thinking. “I just don’t.”
“Atticus,” Jane said, her raspy voice quiet, like a small clearing of the throat. “I’m not going to sit here and pretend that you and I are best friends. I resent you for what you did to me, though I know it was partly out of your control. I know you hate me. And I’m not making any promises to stop fighting for a Utopia for mankind. When this issue is dealt with, I’ll continue with my mission. I will do whatever it takes.”
Tick looked up sharply. “You will, huh? You’ll go right back to destroying entire worlds and throwing little kids into awful experiments? No skin off your back, right?”
Jane pounded a fist on her knee. “Yes! I will do whatever it—”
Her words were cut off by the door slamming open, the entire room seeming to tremble. Jane and Tick both shot to their feet to see who had come in.
It was Mordell, and her face was pale with fright.
“The Fourth Dimension has torn open outside the castle,” she announced in a shaky voice, as if she had to avoid shouting to preserve the dignity of her order. “The Void is attacking our creatures.”
Fog and Thunder
Lorena had been holding Lisa in her arms—the girl had finally dozed off—when she heard the terrible sound in the distance. It was like a great, rushing wind, with cracks of thunder splintering it. And then she heard the screams. Unnatural screams that she knew came out of the mouths of Jane’s creatures.
Lisa’s head popped up immediately, her chance at slumber gone. “What is that?”
“I don’t know, sweetie.” Lorena’s heart picked up its pace, and a swell of panic bulged in her chest, making it hard to breathe. If something was making those awful monsters scream, then what would it do to them?
She heard the scuffle of feet running along the passage outside the Great Hall. Grabbing Lisa’s hand, she stood up, and the two of them went over to the arched exit to investigate. The two fangen that had been assigned to guard them were gone, and dozens of creatures were frantically scurrying past the opening, away from the shattered door that led outside to the castle grounds. Any noise of their passage was drowned out by the sounds of thunder crashing and booming, which were getting louder.
“What on earth?” Lorena whispered, barely hearing herself. She looked at Lisa, whose eyes were wide and scared.
“It sounds like a storm!” her daughter yelled to her. “But how could it be hurting all those people?”
“You mean creatures.” Lorena shook her head. “It has to be something more than a storm.”
“Let’s go look!” Lisa shouted.
Lorena frowned at her, thinking her daughter had surely gone nuts. That, or she was still young enough to let curiosity overrule common sense.
Lisa pulled her mom closer and spoke into her ear. “If it’s not just a storm, and if it’s hurting the bad guys, then it must be on our side. We need to find out who or what it is and let them know that Mistress Jane has Tick!”
Lorena had started shaking her head before Lisa even finished. “No way!”
“But this is our chance! No one’s guarding us!”
“No way,” Lorena repeated. But then she peered into her daughter’s eyes and saw that courage had replaced the fear to a degree. Motherly pride filled her chest and made her change her mind. “Okay, maybe just a peek. But we stop when I say so. Do you understand?”
Lisa smiled, a pathetic little effort. “Okay. I promise.”
Like two spies, they slipped out of the Great Hall and ran down the passage alongside the internal stream, toward the broken door and the gray wall behind it.
Sato pulled up short when he saw the strange anomaly appear right in front of the castle. They’d been marching for several hours, the sun sinking toward the forest on the horizon, the Fifth Army like a slow-moving tsunami behind their leader. Sato had promised them that one day soon, they’d return to the Fifth Reality and take back their world from the Bugaboo soldiers who’d gone insane and ruled with crazed minds.
But for now, the army was pledged to help the Realitants get things back in order. And before even that, Sato wanted to see his friend Tick again. See him safe and sound.
They were cresting the rise of a hill, the land sloping below them toward the castle, when Sato saw something that made no sense, made him doubt his own eyes. Made him wonder if they’d been working too hard and his mind was on the fritz.
Starting at a spot about fifty feet above the ground, close to the ruined castle itself, the air seemed to rip apart like a burst seam, the blues and whites and greens of the world replaced by a stark and empty grayness that spread in a line toward the grasses below. Lightning flickered behind the torn gash in reality, and even from where he stood a mile or so away, Sato could hear the rumbles of thunder. Not just hear it—the noise made the ground tremble and his head rattle.
Tollaseat stepped up beside him. “There’s been rumors of the like, there ’as. Fabric of the world rippin’ apart and whatnot. Sendin’ out destruction for the poor blokes who might be standin’ nearby.”
Sato nodded. He’d heard some of the soldiers whispering about it, but seeing it in person sent a wave of unease through his bones and joints. There was something terribly unnatural about it, and he knew it meant trouble.
“What should we do, sir?” Tollaseat asked. His voice revealed a trace of fear, but Sato knew the man and his fellow soldiers would storm the odd thing if he asked. Which he did.
“We need to know what that is,” Sato said, hearing the strong command in his own speech. “And we need to save Tick. One mission has become two.”
Tollaseat clapped him on the back. “We’ll roll it up and bottle it, we will. Take it back to old Master George with a wink and a smile.”
“That we will,” Sato agreed. “Let’s move out.”
The Fifth Army started marching down the hill.
Tick felt weird following Mistress Jane down the long, winding staircase. He felt weird about being around her at all. He was pretty sure two mortal enemies had never acted like this before, trying to kill each other one week, then chitchatting about the world’s problems before scurrying down some steps to investigate a bunch of noise and fog the next.
He was curious. Was it a coincidence that the Void Jane had spoken of—this beast of the Fourth Dimension that represented some kind of pure and powerful energy—would attack her castle just as they had begun to scheme against it? Or did it have more of a mind than Jane thought?
They reached the bottom of the stairs and stumbled out into the main passageway, which was flanked by a narrow river on one side and the castle’s interior stone wall on the other. It was a scene of chaos. Creepy chaos. Dozens of Jane’s creatures, mostly fangen, were running pell-mell along the pathway, many of them wounded, some falling into the water. If the creatures started chasing him, he thought he’d die of fright before he could even think to use his newfound powers. But they all just kept fleeing, heading deeper into the castle.
Jane stopped to assess the situation, looking in the direction from which all of her creatures had fled. Tick did the same, but all he could see was a gray light. A rumble of something loud and booming came from there.
“Come!” Jane yelled, sprinting toward the odd light and the noise. Her robe billowed out as she ran, and her hood fell back, revealing the scarred horrors of her head, where her hair had once grown healthily. Feeling another pang of guilt, Tick followed her.